LISBON (Reuters) – Whispering “Hashish? Cocaine?”, street sellers are offering unsuspecting tourists in Lisbon’s center “drugs” which police say are often bay leaves, flour or ground paracetamol.
Locals in Lisbon’s historic Santa Maria Maior district say the fake drugs phenomenon is getting worse, worrying police and business owners who fear tourists could start to steer clear of the Portuguese capital’s bustling center.
“Everyone on my tours gets asked if they want drugs,” Maarten, a Belgian tour guide working in Lisbon, said. “Some just laugh, but others don’t like it at all.”
Portugal, which has long been popular for its beaches, historic sites and golf courses, has become reliant on tourism in recent years after government and businesses looked to it to drive growth after the 2011-14 debt crisis.
Preliminary figures released at the end of last year showed Portugal welcomed a record of 26 million tourists in 2019, with around a third visiting Lisbon. Data from the World Travel and Tourism Council showed that the total contribution of travel and tourism to Portugal’s GDP reached 19.1% in 2018.
Drugs are not a new problem for the country, which decriminalized possession and consumption of a limited amount of drugs in 2001 after decades of high rates of heroin addiction.
But while selling drugs is illegal, selling bay leaf or flour is not. At best, it is a breach of street licensing laws.
Bruno Pereira, police commissioner for Lisbon’s criminal investigation department, said that new legislation was needed to tackle the problem, which requires “continuous attention”.
“Tourists are unaware of this phenomenon so they are fooled,” Pereira said. Police say vendors make a steep profit by showing potential buyers a real drug sample to smell or taste and once they have paid, handing them a fake substitute.
“Tourists complain every week that they’ve been ripped off outside our bar,” a bartender in the main party street said.
Local business owners, who like Maarten want to remain anonymous in case of a backlash from dealers, are worried.
Tourists sometimes come into bars saying they are hiding from dealers, one bar owner said. Police said that on occasion dealers get aggressive if a potential buyer is not interested.
Police launched a series of posters in 2016 and still on display featuring tongue-in-cheek slogans like “Need some seasoning? There’s cheaper bay leaf in the grocery store. Don’t buy fake drugs!”
Reporting by Victoria Waldersee and Catarina Demony; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Alexander Smith